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ENGL 291: The American Novel Since 1945
- Jack Kerouac, On the Road (cont.)
In this second lecture on On The Road, Professor Hungerford addresses some of the obstacles and failures to the novel’s high ambitions for achieving American community through an immediacy of communication. Sal Paradise’s desire to cross racial boundaries, for example, seems ultimately more exploitative than expansive; Dean’s exuberant language of “Yes!” and “Wow!” devolves into meaningless gibberish. And yet the novel’s mystical vision of something called “America” persists, a cultural icon that continues to engage the interest of readers, scholars, and artists. Among these latter is the digital art collaborative Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries, with whose online work DAKOTA Hungerford concludes the class.
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The American Novel Since 1945
ENGL 291 - Lecture 9 - Jack Kerouac, On the Road (cont.)
Chapter 1. Kerouac’s Mythical America: Trans-historical Communities [00:00:00]
Professor Amy Hungerford: All right. I’ve put two quotations on the board for your consideration. The first is from Norman Mailer. This is from Advertisements for Myself. He says, “Jack Kerouac lacks discipline, intelligence, honesty, and a sense of the novel.” Of course, some people might apply those adjectives to Mailer himself, but that’s what Mailer said. “On the Road”–this is from a critic named George Dardess; this is from a 1974 article about On the Road–“is a love story, not a travelogue and certainly not a call to revolution.” So, I put these up here to sort of sit in the background of what I’m going to talk to you about today about the ultimate payoff for Kerouac’s effort and the Beats’ effort, more generally, to imagine a language that is the adequate analog to experience, a language that is itself a kind of experience, and further, that is an ecstatic, mystical kind of experience.
Last time, in addition to introducing that idea of language to you, I conducted a reading of the first part of the novel where I suggested that Kerouac tells a story that is not so much about the escape from an American consumer culture of the postwar period as it is a story about the absolute immersion in a culture of consumption. So, what Sal Paradise consumes on the road extends from pie, as I demonstrated to you by the multiple references, the simple food that the body needs and wants; to girls, all the women that he tries to sleep with and that Dean tries to sleep with over the course of the novel; to money and the consumer goods that come with it in order to build a middle-class American life with his aunt in New York–remember he buys the icebox, the first electric icebox of their family, the first refrigerator of their family, when he comes back from his first road trip–to a kind of mystical access to America, a history of jazz. There’s a whole set of mystical cultural artifacts that Sal Paradise and his friends consume over the course of this novel.
So, I want to begin just by pointing to you, on page 297, a somewhat more complex example of what this looks like toward the end of the novel. This is at the bottom of that page. They’re driving out of Mexico, Sal and Dean, and they meet indigenous people along the road.
That’s Dean. In this fantasy about the indigenous girls, what you see is a commitment to language and the activity of selling, buying and selling, entirely entwined with one another. So, the fantasy here is that it’s selling and buying that produces in them a language that looks very much like the language that’s frequently attributed to Dean: frantic and silly, almost silly. Remember, as the novel goes on and Dean gets more and more hyper, sort of “wigged out,” his language becomes more and more frantic, and more and more actually silly. So this is here attributed to them. There are other fantasies at work here, obviously. One is that they are reading a kind of Christian essentialism into these people, into their eyes. They see the Virgin Mary, and they see Jesus. There is a whole mystical objectification of these people that’s going on, that’s allied to the religious strains of this novel, which I’m going to pick up again a little bit later on in my lecture today.
So, this is a more complex and, sort of, dense example of how that consumer, that push to consume, that consumer sense drives and motivates the novel and plays out in what they see when they are on the road. In that passage that I read to you when they’re in the mountains in Colorado drunk, yelling, they call themselves “mad, drunken Americans.” Well, what does America mean in this novel? And what does it mean to be an American in this novel? So, that’s the question I’d like to take up today first. Coming from Lolita, the vision of America in On the Road looks quite different. In Lolita the vision of America is minute; it’s detailed; it’s concrete. Remember, for example, the Komfee Kabins that Nabokov gives us as Lolita and Humbert tour around: the painful, luminous, tiny detail of all that they see on the road. Think to yourself. Do you see any of that kind of detail in this book? I see shaking heads. No. We really don’t. What do we see instead? What America do we see?
I’m going to look back to a passage I talked about in a different vein last time, on 26 and 27, just for one quick example. This is, remember, when he’s hitched a ride in this truck, and it’s a truck bed full of men who have hitched rides. And he’s talking with Mississippi Gene. This is at the bottom of 26:
In this scene Big Slim Hazard is an American type, just as Mississippi Gene is himself. Their names tell you that they’re almost cartoonishly American types. The fact that Mississippi Gene knows this vague person, Big Slim Hazard, gives you the feeling that America is a tiny community in which these types loom large, that anyone from anywhere–if he’s the right kind of American–will know the other members of that American tribe of types. So, Mississippi Gene knows the America that Sal knows, and it’s America populated by these larger-than-life figures. The very vagueness of the description: “You mean the tall fellow with the big laugh?” How many people can we imagine who might fit that description? It’s like telling your horoscope; if you’re general enough, you’re going to make a match. So, Sal is convinced–he wants to be convinced; he desperately wants to be convinced–that Mississippi Gene knows Big Slim Hazard. Let’s look at another example on page 59. This is something else Sal wants.
There is a nostalgia here, not for the past of the old West. It’s important that Denver is in the West. The nostalgia here is not for the old West, but for the young West. The West in On the Road is an area of youth. It’s always, in American lore, been an area of adventure and imagination, but this is well after the end of Manifest Destiny. There is no border in the West. So Sal has to reinvent one, and in some sense it’s a border of time. It’s a spring of youth that’s inaccessible, somehow, to Sal, that these men he’s with who are so exciting to him as their own kind of western American type, that they blossomed and grew in this particular place, and he wants to have been there with them. So, in a way, by longing to be where they were when they were children, by longing to inhabit that time, as well, he wants to become them. So, this is just one of the ways that Sal longs to assimilate them to himself. The other big way, of course, is through Dean’s language, but this is another way. It’s a vision of the West as a place of, generally, male youth. When he’s back in New York–this is on page 125–his New York friends meet his road friends, and are delighted by them. This is one of his friends: “ ‘Sal, where did you find these absolutely wonderful people? I’ve never seen anyone like them.’ ‘I found them in the West.’”
So, there is that sense of the West as a source, and what he’s going to do is take them back East. So, the West is a fountain of youthful energy that Sal continually draws back to the East, to New York. Sal is never really going to be gone from New York that long. He never really wants to leave, and one sign of it is that icebox, but the other sign of it is that he continually returns and takes these people with him. And part of the pleasure for him is to do that transaction, to enliven the old East with the young West. These are all stereotypes of America, but Sal really believes them and really inhabits them. Now look on 172. This is Sal in one of his major moments of vision. He’s in New Orleans, and he’s on Market Street. Oh, sorry. He’s in San Francisco, and he’s on Market Street. This is the middle of 172.
That language at the end there is pure Allen Ginsberg. So, that’s that incantatory Beat mysticism. It’s a mysticism of emptiness, in the end, but what fills that emptiness as we lead up to that moment is this fantasy of trans-historical existence, that he can somehow embody a whole human story across time. Where’s that story coming from? Well, this is a Dickensian mother. It’s Dickens in part, that stereotype of old London, of the urban working class, but it’s not just Dickens. Moby Dick is here too. If you look at that litany of streets that lead down to the water, any of you who have read Moby Dick will recall that Ishmael talks at the beginning, before he gets on the Pequod, he talks about how streets that lead to water draw you inevitably, and he talks about all the streets in New York that end in water. And he has this long meditation on that aspect of city geography. Well, here is Sal having that meditation, too.
So, what you see in this passage is not only a sort of mystical trans-historical fantasy, but a literary one. He’s getting his mythology not just from the cupboard of stereotypes that are proper to American self-conception. He’s looking back to literary stories, too, that he can assimilate into his experience and read through, experience through, so that every little thing he experiences, like this moment of abandonment. Dean has gone off with Camille; Marylou is off somewhere else; he’s starved; he doesn’t have any place to go. But it becomes a moment of vision, and it can be a moment of vision because he has these ways of layering over that experience with mythic and literary significance. Finally, on 147, we have another example of this, and it shows us something even a little different, or it pushes the point further. This is in New Orleans:
Here you get a dream, not just of trans-historical time, the old Spanish ships that turn out just to be freighters from Sweden and Panama; you get another nod to Melville, Cereno ships (Benito Cereno is one of Melville’s famous novels). “That everything I would ever know was One.” The oneness that he is looking for is partly that oneness of mystical emptiness that we saw in the last passage. But here we get the sense of the racial oneness that comes out in some of the other parts of the novel: the Negroes plying the shovel and singing, another American type. But this is a type with which Sal longs to merge. And this is how–on 179 and 180–this is how he images a way out of himself. So this is on 179.
Chapter 2. Defining American Identity: Sal’s Illusory Vision of Mystical Oneness [00:22:03]
So, I’m moving from the question of “What does America look like; what’s the mythic vocabulary that Sal is using?” to, “How does he find his identity as an American?” So, first he makes America mythic, rather than specific (if we compare him back to Nabokov), and then he enters into that mythology through acts of identification. And here is one of the most important.
He goes on in this vein for that whole paragraph if you just skim down.
Well, this is hugely stereotypical, hugely appropriative. Sal wants to take the entire life experience of a group of people and suck it into himself. Now, you want to ask yourself: What is the sadness that motivates this appropriation; why does he want to become the Negro? He says in another moment, “I was Mexican.” He’s always trying to be more exotic than himself, than simple Sal Paradise. Well, Baldwin had something to say about this. James Baldwin characterized this passage as “absolute nonsense, and offensive nonsense, at that. And yet, there is real pain in it, and real loss, however thin. And it is thin, thin because it [Let’s see. Sorry. There is a typo in my note here] It does not refer to reality, but to a dream.” That’s what it is: “It does not refer to reality, but to a dream.” And he says of his own writing, “I had tried to convey something of what it felt like to be a Negro, and no one had been able to listen. They wanted their romance.”
Well, I think that’s a pretty clear-eyed view, and a clear indictment, of what Kerouac is doing through the character of Sal. Sal in this moment becomes so naïve, naïve of history, of actual lived history of his own country. But, as you’ve seen, the mythic quality of America has pushed all of that aside. So, it’s not just the Komfee Kabins that we don’t see; it’s the whole history of slavery. And when he goes picking in the cotton fields, he imagines that he could be a slave. And then he makes some comments about how, well, he could never pick cotton fast enough; he’s just not able to do it as black men are. So, it’s motivated by a huge blindness about the racial history of the United States in any of its detail. That sense of the oneness, I think, points to why and how he makes that illusion, the oneness. He felt that it was all one. The oneness is elevated from this sense of appropriation, to a mystical level. So that oneness looks something like the Buddhism that Kerouac studied for a time; it looks like something more than the effort for Sal just to be something exotic. It looks like, by entering into that oneness, by adopting all these different identities, that Sal participates into some larger mystical body.
But, what is that larger mystical body? We have been given one candidate: that it’s America, that it’s somehow America. And I want you to keep this in mind and make a note to yourself. Think about this vision of an American mystical oneness when you go to read Crying of Lot 49 ‘cause you’re going to see something quite similar there. There’s actually a wonderful episode in On the Road that is nearly a carbon copy of what you’ll see later in Crying of Lot 49, where Dean looks down on Salt Lake City at night, and he looks at the pattern of the lights down below him. Oedipa Maas in Crying of Lot 49 will sit up on a bluff overlooking San Narciso, and she’ll look down at the pattern of light. And it’s an important moment in that novel, a moment of religious revelation, but what’s being revealed remains in Pynchon quite difficult to pin down. Here, it’s equally vague. So, on 5, back to that question. What can motivate this kind of effort? On page 181 he says:
Sal needs the rich girl to keep his vision fueled, but the white sorrows are part of what it pays for. The rich girl provides him with—in a way–with these white sorrows; she funds them. You can have white sorrows, whatever those really are. You can have white sorrows if you have the hundred-dollar bill to send you off on one of these odysseys. You’re not pinned down to a place working for a living. I’m not going to talk about jazz, and the way it figures, but I hope that you will have a chance to talk about that in section because that brings together several elements of what’s important in the novel.
Chapter 3. Dean and Sal, Again: The Theme of Sadness [00:30:01]
I want to focus now on the sadness. I don’t know if you noticed how often that adjective appears in the novel. Did any of you notice that? “Sadness…sadness…sad night.” One of the saddest things, after Dean and Sal get into their only fight, really, is the uneaten food on Dean’s plate, the sadness of the uneaten food. What’s sad in this novel, I think, is the way the specificity of persons pushed back against that general collapse into mystical communing with one another. What’s sad: Dean’s wife, Camille, and their baby. It’s sad. He abandons them, and she is left with them. All the women in Dean’s life call him to the carpet and tell him of all his sins. That’s a sad moment in the novel, a moment of difficulty, a moment of specificity also. What else is sad? It’s sad when Dean leaves Sal feverish in Mexico. He’s off. He has his girls to chase, his wife to go back to, to divorce, whichever one is which. He has all of these machinations to attend to. The friendship between the two, in the end, doesn’t seem to mean very much, or, at least in that moment it doesn’t seem to mean very much.
If George Dardess is right that this is a love story, it’s the love story between Sal and Dean. And I hope, as you are reading, you notice that chapter opening where once again Dean appears at the door when Sal shows up, and he’s totally naked. I hope you noticed that. It’s the third time that we see that so there is an eroticism between them. And there is this heartbreaking love that Sal has for Dean, and, if you track that through, the major turning points in the second two thirds of the novel are moments when Sal makes it clear to Dean that he actually cares about him. And I can point you to some of these pages. This is on 189. I’m not going to do them all, ‘cause there is something else I want to show you today. This is after Dean has been, sort of, called to the carpet, and he says:
That’s such a great encapsulation of not caring about any specific thing, but still being incredibly invested. But this is mirrored by Sal’s very specific investment in Dean, and this is on the bottom of the facing page, on 189:
So, he finally realizes that Sal actually has a specific love for him, not caring about him somehow in principle, which is the way of course that Dean cares. So, this is the sadness of the novel. It’s this unrequited love; Dean is never capable of loving Sal in the same way that Sal loves Dean. And, at the very end, when Sal has to leave Dean on the street, I actually love how this works. He’s in the back of a Cadillac. His friend, Remi, is taking him in a limousine to a concert, a Duke Ellington concert [which is important by the way, and I’ll leave you to think about why that might be important]. Remi won’t have Dean in the car, so the car drives on. Sal is with a new girlfriend, Laura, about–to whom he’s told all about Dean.
In that moment Sal supplies the answer for why Dean came, “never knew why he had come anyway,” and then Sal supplies “except to see me,” and his own pain and tears are routed through Laura. It’s Laura who cries at Dean’s abandonment, while he maintains this composure, this masculine composure: “he’ll be all right.” But, the sadness here is surely Sal’s.
By the end, the language of experience–this is on 304–the language of experience that Dean represents is completely exhausted. This is how Dean talks at the very end:
Dean’s language has gone from this sort of quasi-academic gibberish of the beginning of the novel, to this completely fragmented, broken version of the “yes”s and “ah”s and “wow”s of those early, ecstatic days. So, Sal’s language, by the end, has absorbed some of this, and yet gone on to honor a kind of coherence that Dean cannot inhabit anymore, or maybe that Dean never inhabited.
So, the last sentence of the book, which I want to read to you–I think I have time–just because this is the language that Sal comes out of it with, or that Kerouac comes out with as, the payoff for opening language, in the ways that Dean’s language of immediacy represents. So this is one sentence, page 307, the last paragraph.
So, he’s blasted open the syntax of that sentence, piled clause upon clause upon clause, phrase on phrase, to include that whole road in the one sentence. So, if the dream of Kerouac’s language is to pour experience into language and make language immediate, this sentence is a very fine example of the payoff. There is a kind of goofiness at the center of it, “God is Pooh Bear.” What does that mean? God is just a toy? God is a children’s story? But then there is that lyrical, elegiac, always sad sense of longing, and the excess of the end: “Dean Moriarty…Dean Moriarty’s father…Dean Moriarty.” You can’t just say it once. You have to try to fill that void by saying it two times and by invoking his father a third time. So the excess and the longing are there, each trying to drive or satisfy the other.
Chapter 4. The Publication History: Creating a Literary Object [00:41:12]
Now, if we have any doubts that On the Road is mythic in itself, I just want to show you quickly two things. In 2007, On the Road had its fiftieth anniversary of publication. It was written in 1951 and it was published in 1957 by Viking. So last year we were treated to these two books. One thing that fascinates me about them is that they are examples of how publishing houses rely on known names for making money. So, Viking has On the Road in their backlist, so they can make new copies. The pagination of this is exactly the same. All they did was bind; they made a retro cover, and they bound the original book review from the New York Times into the front. They just printed that in, and then they just reproduced the text again, so it becomes a sort of keepsake book. I’m not sure that a lot of people are going to read this book, but a lot of people might buy it as a keepsake.
This is the original scroll version. This is like the sop to scholars. This is for the scholarly buyer. This is for people like me (or not like me). This is the original typescript put into pages, but, as I think I mentioned in my first lecture, Kerouac wrote the manuscript for On the Road on one long, 120-foot roll of paper. He just stuck it in the typewriter. No paragraphs, no nothing; he just went. So, this book reproduces that, just breaking it as the pages demand (instead of actually giving us a scroll, which would be pretty cool). But what else they do, is they lard it with scholarly articles. There are–let’s see–three scholarly articles, and then there is a note on the editing of the text and there are suggestions for further reading. It makes it into a real literary object, sort of like a modernist text. And what I love here is that, apparently, at the very beginning of the scroll, Kerouac made a typo, and the editor says, “I read it. I let the typo stand.” Here it is, the editor, Howard Cunnell: “Because it so beautifully suggests the sound of a car misfiring before starting up for a long journey, I have left uncorrected the manuscript’s opening line, which is ‘I met met Neal not long before my father died.’” There is the fantasy that the writing approximates the actual car trip, “met met.” Oh, “it sounds like a car starting. I’m going to leave that in there.” So, the editors just buy–completely buy–the text’s own mythology and produce all this apparatus around it to help us believe it, too.
Now, the last thing I want to show you is on a less skeptical note. If you ever doubt that the legend and the dream of On the Road is alive and is powerful in art, literary art and visual art, today, all you need to do is look at a very recent work of digital art. This is Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries, which is a collaboration of an American man and a Korean woman who create online digital artworks. And this is one of them from 2002 called Dakota, and I think you will see immediately how and why it is related to On the Road. It’s also related to Ezra Pound’s Cantos, but I’m not going to burden you with that right now. What I want you to do is just think about this. It runs about six minutes, so I’m going to let that go now. [digital artwork playing] All right. Okay. So, if you ever doubted that the dream of an immediate language that is somehow the correlate to jazz and experience, that’s your dream living on. Okay.
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